On the Set: At sixtysomething, director-producer Ken Olin is the beating heart of ‘This Is Us’
Can Ken Olin keep the kids from yawning?
It’s just shy of 10 a.m. one Thursday this summer on the Paramount back lot in Hollywood, and production on NBC’s time-jumping megahit “This Is Us” has been in motion for hours. Like, since 7 a.m. And, well, the child actors — Lonnie Chavis, Mackenzie Hancsicsak and Parker Bates, who play the young versions of Randall, Kate and Kevin, respectively— are getting a bit restless inside a makeshift video rental store where the fictional Pearson family is browsing for some flicks on a “snowy” day. Olin spots a yawn.
“Oh no, the kids are getting bored,” whispers Olin, who is directing the episode, from behind a group of monitors. He yells “Cut!” and makes his way to the actors.
“You guys are doing great,” he says enthusiastically. “Let’s try to get the energy back up.” He gives out high-fives as Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore, who play parents Jack and Rebecca, cheerfully clap to help the recharge.
This is Olin in his element.
Though he started out as an actor — forever linked to his breakout role as tortured family man Michael Steadman in ABC’s late ’80s yuppie drama “thirtysomething”— Olin has become part of the company of thespians that have made the leap behind the camera. His status as a go-to producer, writer and director has translated to a list of credits that includes “Alias,” “Brothers & Sisters,” “Sleepy Hollow” and now “This Is Us.”
These days, Olin, 63, serves as an executive producer and frequent director on the popular NBC drama. He’ll helm six episodes in its sophomore outing, including Tuesday night’s eagerly awaited premiere.
“You can’t ever anticipate something like this,” Olin says of the show’s meteoric rise. (The drama was the highest-rated new series last season.) “It’s not ‘CSI,’ and it’s not something where you go, ‘Well, those special effects are super cool.’ It’s just about people and how they relate to each other.”
Olin is now seated in his office on the Paramount lot and it’s hard not to sense his enthusiasm for “This Is Us.” He talks about the thrilling challenge of making sure the show’s various timelines sync up — “When I was on ‘thirtysomething,’ there wasn’t an internet or fan blogs scrutinizing every detail. It keeps you on your toes” — and the satisfaction of being part of a show that is wrapped up in the emotions of characters.
According to the cast, it’s that genuine curiosity and admiration for the series that is a critical component to the show’s success.
“He loves these characters,” Moore says. “He loves the stories we’re telling. You feel his excitement when he shows up to work every day. I think people want to work harder to match that enthusiasm.”
It’s a high threshold, to be sure. Olin is one of the most active participants in the “This Is Us” group text chain. “He sends the most outlandish texts,” says Sterling K. Brown, who plays present-day Randall. “And sometimes he’ll send them while he’s directing. And Ken loves a good GIF.”
And Olin’s become such a father figure on the set that when Moore got a black eye earlier this month after a run-in with her shower door handle, he was the second person she called — after her fiancé.
“I called him and was like, ‘What do I do? Where do I go? I have to work.’ [Ken] was like, ‘Stay put.’ Sure enough, he helped get me in to see a doctor to sew me up, and got me a ride there because I was really jarred and in shock. That is indicative of Ken. As goofy and silly as he is, he is also the guy who will step up and help you get your eye sewn up.”
A behind-the-scenes, problem-solving career had been Olin’s interest from the start. He directed a production of Mark Medoff’s “When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?” while a student at the University of Pennsylvania — reading a book on directing for guidance.
You feel [Ken’s] excitement when he shows up to work every day.
Mandy Moore, “This Is Us”
“I had no technique and no craft or anything,” he says. “It was so consuming. I just loved it. But it scared me a little, for some reason, how consumed I was by it. So I continued acting.”
It wasn’t until 1989, during the second season of “thirtysomething,” that Olin’s transition from heartthrob actor to successful off-camera showman began taking shape. He directed two episodes of the drama every season until it went off the air in 1991 — including the cancer-themed episode “The Other Shoe,” in which Nancy Weston (played by Olin’s wife, Patricia Wettig) distances herself from her family as she spends time with another cancer survivor.
“I’m much happier behind the scenes,” says Olin. “As an actor, I always felt self-conscious. And I was one of those actors that would make suggestions to directors about staging or what might look better. Of course, it’s an entirely different thing to start the process. On my first day of directing, I realized, ‘Oh, my God, this is a lot of work.’ I was terrified. But a good terrified.”
He credits “thirtysomething” creators and executive producers Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, both directors, with creating a safe learning space. (In fact, all the cast members were invited to direct and some continue to stay active.) Olin says he made developing his directing career a priority after that, but still acted in short-run television shows such as “EZ Streets” and “L.A. Doctors,” because, he says, it was more lucrative.
Once directing became a viable path, that became his focus. Adding executive producer to his repertoire soon followed. In addition to “Alias” and “Brothers & Sisters,” Olin lent his talents to such shows as “Felicity,” “The West Wing” and “Freaks and Geeks.”
Those who have worked with Olin credit his background in acting for his ability to mine the depth of a scene — whether crafting the story or shooting it.
“He has such an incredible sense of execution and filmmaking for the kind of stories that really elevate network television drama,” says Greg Berlanti, who was an executive producer on “Brothers & Sisters.” “He really connected with the emotional narrative of characters.”
J.J. Abrams, who created “Alias” and co-created “Felicity,” puts it this way: “He cares desperately about the people, about the moments the characters have being as fully realized as possible.”
Olin doesn’t quite know how to characterize his style. But Ventimiglia and Moore describe it as directing in “incomplete sentences.”
“He’ll get started on one thought, then he’ll jump to another and then a third and a fourth,” Ventimiglia says. “And he’ll kind of look at you and be like, ‘Right?’ And strangely, you know exactly what he’s saying. He directs from an emotional place that you can almost feel as an actor. He’s very engaged with the characters, but also has this beautiful view of story. And that’s how he moves his camera. He pieces together an emotional symphony.”
One thing is for sure in regards to the tear-jerking drama: “I don’t ever set out with the goal of making people cry.”
Olin still remembers reading the “This Is Us” pilot for the first time. He and his wife were living in New York.
“There have been times when I needed the job, I needed to work, I needed the money,” Olin says. “And most of the time, those things haven’t turned out so well. When I’m not happy, I don’t do very good work and I get frustrated. So we made a decision to sell our house in L.A. And I said, ‘From now on, I’m just going to work on things I really love. I’m getting older.’”
Then came “This Is Us,” seeking an executive producer.
“I went into my office and came out like 45 minutes later and I said, ‘Oh, Patty, this is really good.’ She thought I was kidding, because I never say that. Needless to say, we moved back.”
Dan Fogelman, creator of “This Is Us,” recalls his first meeting with Olin, over a video conference call, and the sense that it was a no-brainer to hire him.
“It’s a great partnership,” Fogelman says via email. “Ken is a lovable neurotic, but he’s also confident in his ability — he knows he’s good. And with that confidence comes great collaboration. A lot of very talented, very smart people can close off — they want things to be a certain way and cling to it tightly. Ken is just the opposite — he knows what he wants, but he’s confident enough to collaborate.”
Olin just wants to create compelling television. So, he’s eager to see how people respond to Season 2, particularly the premiere.
“[It’s] probably the biggest episode we’ve done — just in terms of logistics and stuff,” Olin says. “We started slow last year — we were building things up. This one, we started out like, BOOM. And it’s pretty great. Load up on the tissues.”
‘This Is Us’
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.